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  • The Clean Body: A Modern History by Peter Ward
  • Steve Zdatny
Peter Ward. The Clean Body: A Modern History. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019. xi + 313 pp. Ill. $34.95 (9780773559387).

This fascinating and elegantly written new book by Peter Ward, emeritus professor of history at the University of British Columbia, explores the underappreciated revolution in hygiene that transformed sensibilities and practices in the modern [End Page 121] age. Once we were dirty, now we are clean. Once we were smelly, now we are sweet. Once we were lousy, now we are vermin-free. The Clean Body reminds us of just how much this mattered to the human condition.

Moving beyond national histories, Ward collects sources in four languages: French, German, Italian, and, naturally, English. He makes passing references to other parts of the continent but concentrates on these countries, in addition to English-speaking North America. It is an impressively broad canvas and diverse enough to illustrate the way history moves at different speeds in different places. The author begins his story in a not-so-distant past, when “bathing was highly exceptional, washing irregular, and cleanliness mostly a matter of appearances” (p. 6). Louis XIV, he notes, took two baths in his life, and neither was about getting clean. Drawing especially on the influential work of Georges Vigarello, Ward writes that early modern cleanliness referred to linen and not to bodies, and only the rich had access to it. Water was not only scarce and expensive, it was considered dangerous. In the eighteenth century, elite opinion rediscovered the value of baths. In a world that still knew nothing of germ theory, washing remained detached from health, demonstrating that even bad science could lead to sound practice. Of course, none of this mattered much to the urban poor or the great majority of people who lived and worked on the land and did not have the means to keep clean, even if they had understood the necessity.

The ordinary practice of hygiene was embedded in the folk wisdom that surrounded it. Filth was part of life. Dirty skin was a carapace, a strong personal bouquet, a turn-on. Modesty and Christian propriety made genitals a no-go zone for washing. Peasant society was shrouded in superstitions that tied grooming to all sorts of unhappy consequences. Ward also looks into the difficulties that confronted the urban working classes, when it came to keeping clean. Water needed to be lugged up and down stairs. Soap was expensive and privacy all but impossible in crowded, unheated flats. Why bother?

As a cultural matter, the bourgeoisie, believing not just that cleanliness was next to godliness but that it was an excellent way to distinguish themselves from the “vile multitude,” became the driving forces of the hygiene revolution. As the nineteenth century proceeded, they bought running water into their homes and set aside spaces for their toilettes. This sort of individual progress came at a cost beyond the reach of working people. At the same time, governments, either out of fear of social disorder or a genuine desire to improve the lives of the masses, began to invest in public hygiene. They built municipal bains-douches, laid down water and sewer systems, and used the new institutions of free and compulsory primary education to teach children the moral and practical benefits of cleanliness.

This process depended fundamentally on “the conquest of water.” There could be no clean bodies without it. It was not conquered everywhere at once. The Protestant North got modern plumbing before the poorer, Catholic South. And at virtually every moment and in every way North America led the field. Through it all, the details of hygienic practice remain fuzzy. While he can count the spigots and measure the kilometers of pipe, Ward cannot say for certain how often people actually bathed; the evidence is that, until the last quarter of the twentieth century, it wasn’t very often. [End Page 122]

As bodies became cleaner, so did clothes. Where most garments could not have survived a good washing, people wore what they had until it shredded—or until they died, when their old rags would be passed...


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pp. 121-123
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